The Remakable Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

Remembering Paul M. A. Linebarger, who was Cordwainer Smith: A Daughter's Memories

Cordwainer SmithCordwainer Smith was born Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, on July 11, 1913, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His parents were living overseas during his mother's pregnancy, and his father insisted that the baby be born in the United States, so he would be eligible to become president of the United States.

I never met my grandfather—he died before I was born—but I heard a lot of family tales about him. A lawyer, he became a judge in the Philippines when they were still United States territory, and while there he decided that Dr. Sun Yat Sen needed a western advisor. So off he went to China and became that advisor.

Another story that I heard my father tell was of his father's deathbed. "Paul," he said, "I don't think I have any illegitimate children, but if any turn up, please be generous with them." None ever did.

So my father grew up in a variety of places: Washington, D.C., the German resort of Baden Baden, and China come to mind but there were probably other places too. He was the older of two boys.

When he was six, he lost the sight of one eye in an accident. This added to his sense of being different, and likely was been the beginning of the theme of pain and suffering that ran through his life and writing. I have a photocopy of a postcard that Dr. Sun Yat Sen sent my father not long after my father lost his vision in one eye, in an accident:

26/3/20 Dear Paul: I am very sorry to hear of the accident to your eye. You must show what a brave boy you are by keeping cheerful always. This will help you to recover quicker. Sun Yat Sen

Paul and Wentworth Linebarger with servants in ChinaThe loss of his eye also resulted in this story that I remember him telling: when he was in his teens, he was living in a large house in China with his parents and younger brother Wentworth. His father was away on one of his many trips, and the family was experiencing petty theft in the house.

So Paul assembled the servants and said to them, "We have been having problems with things disappearing. Of course, none of you would ever take anything, but I want you to know that I am putting the evil eye on whoever takes anything.."

He had been holding a spare glass eye in his mouth, in one cheek, and he moved it around so it was protruding from his lips. He then walked solemnly from room to room, servants following. Nothing was ever stolen from the house after that.

Skipping ahead... he and my mother, Margaret Snow, were married in 1939. Here is a bit from my mother's 1938 journal:

DAMNATION NIGHT-a story suggested by Paul (he wants me to write it but I doubt I ever could). The story is about a group of people banded together for the purpose of murder as a sport and pleasure. Motivation? Perhaps an obscurely recognized hunger for living, for vitality, for the feeling of lust and life and adventure, an adolescent kind of desire for "making something happen." Also, perhaps an enormous infinitely destructive boredom that makes existence a mockery of life? Also perhaps the value of danger as a "tonic"....

They had intended to have children, but it wasn't until the start of World War II that they decided it was time. I was born in 1942, conceived a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. (When I was about 12, my father told me that he had felt something beyond the ordinary at the moment of my conception. At that age, I was very uncomfortable hearing this, but later I was glad to know this.)

He was in the army, in China and India. Here's a story from that era that impressed me as a child: One warm night in China, he was sitting in an outhouse. It was a two-seater, and as he idly glanced at the other open seat, he noticed little luminescent lights under the seat. He assumed they were fireflies. Then he heard the roar of trucks from not far away... turned out the outhouse was perched on a cliff, and the lights he saw were from military conveys on the main highway far below, more or less directly below his seat!

My parents and me just after the warMy first memory of him is of his return to Washington, D.C. after World War II. I would have been about three, and I remember a very tall man amidst the crowds of people at Washington's Union Station. I remember the background noise of the trains, and that he gave me a stuffed animal.

Luckily, I don't remember another early event. My mother told me that when the war ended, he wanted to give me a spanking so that I would always remember the end of the war. Mom didn't agree with that approach to child-rearing, and the spanking didn't happen.

Overall I recall him as a loving, attentive, and distinctly unusual father. My sister was born in 1947, and my parents divorced two years later. I was in third grade when my father was in Korea. He was always very diligent about sending postcards to my sister and me, and I can still remember my indignation when I received one asking, "How is my big second grader?"

When I was nine, my sister and I started spending a couple of months every summer with my father and our new stepmother, Genevieve.


Paul Linebarger and daughter, 1952, in MexicoThe first year (1952), we went to Mexico. My father's tales overwhelmed me when he talked about the young maidens sacrificed in the well at Chichen Itza, or when he showed us the murals of Diego Rivera in Mexico City, huge walls full of agony and suffering. From that summer onward, the themes of suffering and human cruelty became central issues in my own life — inevitably separating me from my "normal" suburban friends.

My father was very much a cold warrior. During that Mexican summer of 1952, he wasn't just on a family jaunt. I didn't know until Genevieve told me after he died that he had also been working for the CIA on the side, that summer and through many of the years that he was a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

So in 1952, he was working in Mexico City with Howard Hunt, later of Watergate fame. The Russian embassy was having a party, and Daddy (I think Hunt too) got ahold of an invitation. They had many extra copies made and distributed, so that far too many people arrived at the party, and the Russians were embarrassed. A little-known fact of the cold war.

Writing Science Fiction

I have quite a few memories of his writing science fiction. It was fun for him, something he did on the side. He would tell me with some glee what some obscure reference meant... too bad I don't remember most of those. I do remember his saying that his story title "Drunkboat" was from the French poem, "Bateau Ivre," by Rimbaud.

I asked him why he didn't want people to know that he was Cordwainer Smith. As I remember it, he said he didn't want to be bothered by fans. Also, he thought it might make some of his professional colleagues think less of him.

Hong Kong

I remember a couple of stories he used to tell about himself in Hong Kong. He spent a lot of time there, and had most of his suits, shirts, and ties custom-made by the same tailor. Once, at a fitting, the tailor said, "Dr. Linebarger, I have not seen you for some time. Have you been out of town?"

I was only in Hong Kong once, in 1961, when I was coming back from a year in Paris and at the Stanford campus in France. My father arranged for me to meet him, my stepmother Genevieve, and my younger sister Marcia, in Hong Kong. I had to go to the dentist but we will mercifully skip over that memory. I did get a chance to do something I had long wanted to. We had lunch one day at his favorite restaurant. It had booths, with tall wooden dividers between them. I had heard this story numerous times:

Once he and Genevieve were having lunch in this restaurant, when from the other side of the divider behind him came the sounds of someone imitating him. He recognized the voice of one the graduate students who had studied under him at the School of Advanced International Studies, back home in Washington, D.C. Quietly he turned around and gradually raised himself up until his head was sticking above the partition. The fellow imitating him had his back to my father and carried on, having no idea why his friends suddenly became red in the face and very quiet. Finally, the fellow followed his friends' eyes upward, and was aghast at what he saw.

When he told this story, my father would always laugh heartily at this point.

Cuban Missile Crisis

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, I was a junior at Stanford. One of my friends was totally convinced that nuclear war was coming any day. I phoned home—something of a big deal in those days—and Genevieve reassured me that Daddy thought the crisis would be resolved.

But then I got a letter from him with the disquieting advice that if any nuclear bombs were dropped anywhere, I should make my way to Mexico with the American Express card he had supplied me with. From there, he added, I would be in a better position to help him and the rest of the family. He had already told me from time to time that being his daughter meant that I was at some risk from the KGB.

I was not reassured! But now we know that the world did come very, very close to nuclear war that month.


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